In the Greco-Roman world, gender was understood to be fluid. Men could be feminine and women could be masculine, depending on the virtues or vices that they practiced. Masculinity was characterized by the ability to reason and maintain self-control, while femininity was associated with excessive emotion and irrationality. This is particularly important to remember when analyzing early Christian martyrologies, which utilized gender fluidity to reinforce Christian masculine identity.
Christian martyrs were often described as “athletes” participating in the Roman Games. They achieved victory by demonstrating masculine traits, such as endurance and bravery in the face of torture and death. They held fast to reason, identified themselves as Christians, and gladly accepted death. They did not allow themselves to be persuaded to apostatize. In contrast, those who persecuted the martyrs, as well as the crowds who watched the martyrs die, were described in very feminine terms. They were slaves to their emotions and were unjust in their ways. Many stories depicted the martyrs as being old men, young men, and women, who were generally believed to be less masculine. When these martyrs were put up against fully grown, angry male persecutors, the authors drew a distinct contrast between the masculinity of the martyrs and the femininity of their persecutors. This helped to validate Christian beliefs and reinforce Christian masculine identity.
This contrast can be seen in the story of Stephen, the first recorded Christian martyr. In Acts 6:8, Stephen was described as being “filled with grace and power,” indicating that he was a righteous man who practiced self-control. While in Acts 6:10 Stephen spoke with “wisdom and the spirit,” in Acts 6:13 his persecutors “presented false witnesses” against him. Stephen was just in his ways, while his persecutors were unjust and un-open to reason. When Stephen was accused, all could see that he was innocent, for he had “the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). Stephen challenged and criticized his opponents’ lack of justice, saying in Acts 7:53, “You received the law as transmitted by angels, but you did not observe it.” Upon hearing these words, his persecutors became “infuriated, and they ground their teeth at him” (Acts 7:54), showing their inability to control their emotions. On the other hand, Stephen was “filled with the holy Spirit” (Acts 7:55) and even prayed for his oppressors as they stoned him. The author of Acts clearly marked a distinction between the masculinity of Stephen and the femininity of those who stoned him. In doing so, it emphasized Stephen’s innocence and validated his believes.
By demonstrating masculine qualities in the face of torture and death, a Christian proclaimed his innocence, for criminals commonly acted feminine in the face of danger. The author of 1 Peter wrote on this, saying in 1 Peter 4:15-16, “But let no one among you be made to suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as an intriguer. But whoever is made to suffer as a Christian should not be ashamed but glorify God because of the name.”
For Christians, the ultimate example of masculinity in the face of torture and death was Jesus Christ himself. 1 Peter 2:23 emphasizes that Jesus “handed himself over to the one who judges justly.” Jesus was in control and allowed himself to be taken by the authorities, essential to masculine identity. In addition, he gave himself over to God who judges justly, knowing that temporary pain on earth was nothing compared to heavenly glory. For Christians, Jesus was the ultimate example of a righteous and triumphant sufferer, for his victory came through his death and resurrection. 1 Peter 2:21 declares that Christians have been called to suffer, “because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.”